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Robert W. Carlson (1941–2022)

Carlson was Principal Investigator of NASA’s Galileo Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (NIMS) which identified chemical signatures suggesting organic material on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Published onDec 02, 2022
Robert W. Carlson (1941–2022)
Figure 1

Photo courtesy of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Robert “Bob” Warner Carlson died peacefully in his sleep on Tuesday, October 11, 2022 in Reno, Nevada, surrounded by family, after a months-long battle with cancer. He was 80.

Bob was a brilliant scientist, as well as an amazing mentor, friend, husband, father, and grandfather. Those of you who knew him likely recall fond memories of his soft, but detailed approach to any problem — always gracious and insightful.

He was born in Waseca, Minnesota, graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1963, and received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Southern California in 1970. Bob spent most of his career (1978–2016) at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.

Bob’s primary research interests included planetary spectroscopy using spacecraft, validated with laboratory data and field measurements made in Antarctica. His lab work generally focused on how ices and cloud condensates are affected by particle and electromagnetic radiation, which are relevant to the evolution of planetary surfaces and atmospheres.

As Principal Investigator of the Galileo Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (NIMS), he was also the greatest skeptic of the results. Among many firsts made by Bob and the NIMS team, the discovery of hydrogen peroxide and a radiolytic sulfur cycle on Europa have transformed our understanding of the potential habitability of that world, and have helped set the stage for future exploration. Carlson was also Co-Investigator on ESA’s Venus Express and ESA’s Rosetta Visible and Infrared Imaging Spectrometers (VIRTIS). Bob’s final paper, on the composition of samples returned from the minor planet Ryugu, was published a few days before his death.

Figure 2

Carlson gathering samples in Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Kevin Hand, JPL.

As a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Geophysical Research — Planets, he worked hard to see the best in every manuscript. In the lab, Bob was meticulous and diligent, enjoying every opportunity to solve a new planetary puzzle.

He is survived by his wife Kathie, sister Jeanne Withroe, his two daughters Jill Carlson and Kristen Conway, and his four beloved grandchildren Noah, Bridget, and Caleb Conway, and Cooper Carlson.

Adapted and reproduced with permission from The DPS Newsletter 22-31, October 31, 2022

Additional material on Carlson’s scientific work provided by Terry D. Oswalt.

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